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By Gil Troy, Chronicle for Higher Education, 7-17-11

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Our Moral Conversation With Students 1

Dave Plunkert for The Chronicle

Most Americans have not noticed, but Canadians are still reeling from the June 15 riots in Vancouver following the Canucks’ loss to the Boston Bruins for the National Hockey League’s Stanley Cup. Thousands of drunken fans trashed the city’s downtown, torching cars, breaking windows, looting stores. Canada’s trauma offers a modern morality tale, of particular interest to academics because it illustrates students’ malleable, situational, Matrix morality.

Vancouver’s leaders blamed anarchists. But thousands of online clips told a different story. These were probably the most posed for, photographed, videotaped, posted, and forwarded mass crimes in history. Unlike the balaclava-clad goons at G-8 protests, many of the rioters played to the ubiquitous cameras while burning, bullying, smashing, or grabbing. Alcohol, not ideology, stoked the rioters; they were looking for kicks, not playing politics.

Like so many drunken students who act foolishly Saturday night only to be embarrassed when their friends watch them forever after on YouTube, the rioters’ thuggery, however fleeting, went viral. As these vandals-for-a-night slept off their hangovers, the recriminations began. The Vancouver police received 600 gigabytes of data, comprising 15,000 images and 3,000 video files.

The mass postings exposed some heroes. Some citizens defended random stores, rare sentries choosing to stand for order against the epidemic disorder. Alas, sometimes footage showed annoyed rioters stomping good Samaritans.

On the Facebook page “Canucks Fans Against the 2011 Vancouver Riots,” thousands of outraged Facebookers named and shamed the rioters caught on video. Camille Cacnio, a student-athlete, was seen smiling while she looted two size-42 male tuxedo pants from a store. Outed, she posted an apology that is a document for our age, demonstrating what passes for moral reasoning among our students. Cacnio apologizes to her friends, family, school, and city, along with her teammates, employer, favorite hockey team, and the charity where she volunteers. Listed in her Facebook profile, all were implicated.

Cacnio takes “full responsibility” and is “sincerely” sorry. But, she adds, these actions were out of character. She was “influenced by mob mentality.” “I was,” she explains, “immature, intoxicated, full of adrenaline, disappointed in the loss, filled with young rage, and have a ‘go-out-and-do-it’ kind of personality. … It was a spur of the moment kind of thing and I just got caught up in the chaos.”

She admits: “As bad as it sounds, the stealing was pure fun for me.” Anyone who has watched students “party” should recognize the phenomenon. Many live an intense, hyperaccelerated cycle, working hard and partying harder. When they party, they let go. Studies estimate that more than 40 percent of college students have engaged in binge drinking.

Women have closed the once-considerable binge-drinking gender gap, and the impact is significant. In addition to abandoning their traditional role of restraining their male peers, many more drunk women now face predatory males. Inevitably, claims of sexual assault on campus have spiked—attracting White House attention this spring. One study linked two-thirds of unwanted pregnancies on campuses to alcohol abuse.

Cacnio claims to have a conscience, once the thrill and the buzz subside. “As soon as I left the riot I knew that what I did was wrong,” she wrote. “My levels of alcohol and adrenaline in my blood had seriously died down, and I was no longer surrounded by the mob.” Here, Cacnio’s Matrix morality emerges: It was not her fault. She blames the situation, and the stimulants. She is not in control, she simply responds to whatever she happens to be plugged into, much as the movie The Matrix suggests that humans in the future, plugged into simulated reality, will respond to stimuli rather than exercise free will.

Feeling absolved by her passivity, Cacnio turns her “apology” into an indignant attack against “this social media form of mob mentality” now targeting her. She denounces this “21st-century witch hunt,” echoing a blogger’s line. She characterizes herself as the victim of “this new social media court” that convicts, then publicly humiliates, without due process. Presto, chango: The looter becomes the martyr.

Cacnio and others who confessed epitomize this Matrix morality, insisting that they are good people who were seduced by the mania of the moment. More than 20 years ago, in The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom said students were, in general, “nice, as distinct from being moral or noble.” But being nice at least was a consistent and benign lodestar. Today’s challenge is these moral shape-shifters, lacking core commitments.

We in the professoriate have failed our students by abdicating moral authority, even as our campuses steep in bacchanalian excess every weekend. The occasional anti-alcohol campaign, such as the Dartmouth-led Learning Collaborative on High-Risk Drinking, characteristically avoids moral language or ethical reasoning. It approaches binge drinking clinically as a public health problem. And it fails to mobilize the most powerful army of campus role models—the professors.

Yet to start taking responsibility would require a cultural counterrevolution. Many of us academic careerists, often teaching to fulfill course requirements rather than to nurture moral grandeur, are too overextended and too cautious to lead boldly. Tackling students’ binge drinking might risk our professorial popularity ratings. Anyone who can go from happy vandal to apologetic sinner to self-pitying victim so quickly is likely to turn on professors who start upholding standards, rather than saying, “Thank you for standing for something. Universities should build moral character, not just sharpen the mind.”

It is easier to ignore the problem or blame forces beyond the ivory tower. But college acceptance now offers admission to heavy drinking, drug abuse, and risky sexual behavior. We enjoy a rich intellectual tradition that could trigger valuable debate, favoring moderation and discipline over moral sloppiness and excess without preaching or imposing specific boundaries regarding alcohol, drugs, or sex.

Teaching is not just a job; it is a calling. Most of us who become scholars believe in learning’s redemptive power. We have a responsibility to help solve the problems plaguing our universities, and so we must accept the challenge of stretching our students—intellectually, morally, and psychologically. This fall we should begin a professor-driven moral conversation about binge drinking and the culture of campus partying. Cacnio’s non-apology and the dozens of YouTube clips from the Vancouver riots would be excellent catalysts, not just to start the conversation, but also to launch a revolution.

Gil Troy is a history professor at McGill University.

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Lecture and Reception with Gil Troy (Toronto alumni branch)

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iCalendar General information:

Description: Assessing the Professorial President 

On Tuesday, October 19, join us for another thought-provoking McGill on the Move lecture.

As midterm elections loom in the United States, President Barack Obama faces a complex array of challenges, choices and expectations regarding the economy, the war in Iraq, and religious rights and freedoms in the U.S.

In his talk “Obama: The Professorial President in the Time of Midterms,” Gil Troy, a professor of history at McGill, will assess the performance, thus far, of a president who has faced unprecedented pressures at home and abroad.

A native of Queens, New York, Gil Troy is also the visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and the author of several books, including “Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s” and “Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady.” He comments frequently about the American presidency on television and radio, and has published articles in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and USA Weekend.

We look forward to seeing you at what is sure to prove a fascinating lecture.

Date/Time: Tuesday, October 19, 2010 6:30 PM to 8:30 PM
Location(s): Badminton Racket Club,
25 St. Clair Avenue West
Toronto, Ontario
CANADA
RSVP/Pre-Register: September 6, 2010 to October 19, 2010
Admissions:
General $15.00 CAD
includes light hors d’oeuvres; cash bar
# of tickets 

in basket
Contact: Event Registrar
Phone: 1-800-567-5175 x 7684,
Email: event.registration@mcgill.ca

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By Gil Troy, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 11-8-09

[Gil Troy is a professor of history at McGill University and a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, in Washington. His books include Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s (Princeton University Press, 2005) and The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2009). With Vincent J. Cannato, he edited an essay collection, Living in the Eighties (Oxford University Press, 2009).]

Reagan and the 80s Deserve More Courses 1

Alex Majoli, Magnum Photos

Today’s college students, who were born just as Ronald Reagan’s presidency was ending, need more opportunities to understand him and an era that so shaped their America.

Most college students today were born during the 1980s or early 1990s, but they are far likelier to take a history course about the 1960s than about those decades. Market Data Retrieval, a service of Dun & Bradstreet, lists 525 college instructors teaching “the Vietnam era,” meaning the 1960s; courses on the 80s do not even merit a separate category. One publisher’s higher-education marketing manager estimates that although 100,000 students may be enrolled in courses on the 1960s, barely 10,000 take courses on the 1980s. This imbalance reflects the biases and passions of today’s professors far more than the interests or needs of today’s students. Even as many declare the Reagan era over with the rise of President Obama and the fall of the markets, we need more and better courses on the 1980s.

Ten years ago, when I started teaching an honors seminar on Ronald Reagan and the 1980s at McGill University, I could not have made this appeal in good conscience. At the time, I would begin my class with an apology, acknowledging the paucity of good books on the subject. David Stockman and Peggy Noonan had produced riveting memoirs about the Reagan years. But most books followed a predictable path, rehashing the conventional wisdom trailblazed by Garry Wills’s insightful Reagan’s America and Haynes Johnson’s colorful Sleepwalking Through History. We learned again and again about the hedonistic excess of the new Gilded Age and that the president of the United States for most of the decade was considered an “an amiable dunce,” in Clark Clifford’s memorably biting phrase. Too many books seemed formulaic, with diatribes against American greed leavened by anecdotes about Reagan’s declaring ketchup a vegetable (it was actually a Department of Agriculture pronouncement, not his) or Nancy Reagan’s having his presidential schedule dictated by an astrologer (which did occur occasionally). “This is a crucial, complex decade,” I told my students, “but we history profs have not done our job so that you can learn properly about this era.”

History was repeating itself, or actually replicating the politics of the times. Most historians treated Reagan and the 1980s as too anti-intellectual and too conservative to bother studying. The one Bigfoot studying Reagan, Edmund Morris, seemed defeated by the task, unable to complete it, and ultimately unable to keep his work nonfiction. In survey courses, as professors raced through the 20th century, most lingered on the New Deal and the 60s, then ended up sprinting through the 80s, failing to study it properly or situate it within the broader historiographical narrative. Those of us embarking on proj ects or trying to teach classes about the era were immediately suspect, assumed to be conservative renegades out to support the liberals’ Antichrist.

It is one of the great ironies of 20th-century scholarship. Most people yearn for peace and prosperity, but most intellectuals, including historians, seem to detest boom times. In the simplistic Kabuki theater of most 20th-century courses, students learn that the 1920s, 50s, and 80s were bad times, eras of greed and selfishness, of retreat from the great march of prog ress toward bigger and bigger government. By contrast, it is the traumatic times, like the Depression, or World War II, the “good war,” that are great.

From this perspective, the 60s are anomalous. The economy was strong, but so was the push for social justice; thus the attendant professorial approval. Nostalgia for the days of baby-boomer rebellion also feeds the boom in 60s studies. Most baby boomers, who today dominate the professoriate numerically and set the tone ideologically, are invested in justifying the 60s, and in glorifying their own roles in saving the world. In 1999, in Madison, Wis., a top record producer, Steve Greenberg, and I presented a paper for a conference supposedly dedicated to making sense of the decade. Our paper, the “Other Side of the 60s,” analyzed record sales from the time to argue that, on a typical Saturday morning during those halcyon days, far more teenagers and students were washing their cars and listening to bubblegum music like the Archies’ “Sugar, Sugar” than angrily marching on administration buildings singing about revolution. Many of the professors in the room, who were baby boomers, attacked our paper furiously. Many graduate students, who were Generation Xers, thanked us privately after the session for deviating from the usual self-congratulatory 60s narrative.

Related to this, American history is taught as cyclical, following the explanatory paradigm developed by the great father-son history team of Arthur Schlesinger Sr. and Jr. The Schlesingers taught that bursts of reform in America have always triggered periods of retrenchment. Thus the Progressive era ended with World War I and led to the benighted 1920s; the liberal dynamism of the 1930s and 40s resulted in the conservative complacency of the 1950s; and the revolutions of the 1960s and 70s ended with the counterrevolution of the 1980s. That thesis received a strong boost from Susan Faludi’s best-selling 1991 polemic, Backlash, which focused on feminism’s travails during the Reagan era. Given that ebb and flow, with all its emotional and ideological baggage, who wanted to be on the wrong side of history by teaching and writing about the bad old 1980s rather than the good old 1960s?

That view, says Vincent Cannato, a historian at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, is ahistorical, deterministic, and prescriptive, assuming a correct logic to history. Events are caricatured as either contributing to “progress” or impeding it. This simplistic bias is particularly striking in regard to the dynamic setting up the 1960s versus the 1980s. Just this spring, at the Organization of American Historians meeting in Seattle, a leading boomer-aged historian dismissed me when I dared to question her denunciation of the entire Reagan, Bush I, and Bush II years as a dark era of backlash against blacks, women, gays, and the enlightened among us. I argued that the sexual revolution, the civil-rights movement, gay liberation, environmentalism, and many other social movements had been consolidated, mainstreamed, and even advanced during and since the 1980s. How, I asked, could Barack Obama have been elected if the civil-rights revolution had been so stymied? In response, this senior colleague-who had greeted me warmly before the panel presentations began-gave me a withering look and shuddered.

The deification of the 1960s and the denigration of the 1980s reflect scholarship as advocacy and fantasy, with a dash of self-promotion. Most infamously, the great historian Joseph Ellis was embarrassed eight years ago by revelations that in lecturing about the 1960s, he had falsely injected himself into the narrative with invented tales about antiwar, civil-rights, and football heroics.

What sounds sometimes like a political conflict between 60s hippies and Reaganite conservatives is often a generational conflict, especially in the generally liberal milieu of the academy. As a post-baby-boomer, born, like Barack Obama, in 1961, I am old enough to be counted among that demographic surge but too young even to be able to lie credibly about going to Woodstock in 1969, as so many from that generation do. Those of us born in the early 1960s did not watch Howdy Doody when Bill Clinton watched. We had no Vietnam draft to dodge (or not dodge). We were children of Jimmy Carter’s sourpuss politics and Ronald Reagan’s optimism, shaped more by the goofiness of The Brady Brunch-Michelle Obama’s favorite show growing up-and the gritty chaos of that defining 1980s show, Hill Street Blues.

Obama’s rise and his titanic primary battle last year against Hillary Clinton demonstrated the clashing sensibilities, even amid fellow liberals. In January 2008, during the Nevada primary campaign, Obama confessed to admiring Reagan as a transformational leader. Clinton immediately tried to tie Obama to the GOP’s “bad ideas,” as if by acknowledging the scale of Reagan’s accomplishments Obama was endorsing the content of Reagan’s programs.

Needing baby-boomer votes to win, and aware that presidential campaigns are not forums for subtle distinctions, Obama stopped praising Reagan and stopped bashing boomers. But building up to his candidacy, most dramatically in his book The Audacity of Hope, Obama criticized baby boomers, be they left or right. He cast the Clintons and George W. Bush as too rooted in the 60s’ polarizing politics, which Obama vowed to change.

Certainly there is much to learn about the 1960s. It is remarkable how much those years shaped our world and our politics. But especially since the financial meltdown, and with the passage of time, we also have to do right by the 1980s. Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 marked a huge shift in tone, even as many of the phenomena unleashed during the 1960s and 1970s continued to change the world. I emphasize the Reagan Reconciliation. His rhetoric of counterrevolution tempered by his seeking the center helped synthesize the 60s with the 80s, incorporating and accepting the social, cultural, ideological, and lifestyle revolutions sweeping the country during his administration.

Conservatives, be they boomers or younger, are as guilty as 60s-loving liberals of romanticizing their favorite decade. They frequently forget how disappointed they were with Reagan’s shift toward the center during his presidency. Almost from the start, conservatives complained bitterly about Reagan’s moderate choices for the cabinet and his failure to advance their “ABC” agenda for counterrevolution, focusing on abortion, busing, and crime. And Reagan himself embodied the great conservative blind spot of the times. For all his rhetoric about tradition, he and his allies never acknowledged that the consumerist capitalism they celebrated helped further the social movements toward indulgent individualism they detested. The result was an era of conservative libertinism.

Love him or hate him, Ronald Reagan

was the greatest president-meaning the most consequential leader-since Franklin D. Roosevelt. Finally, 20 years after his inauguration, historians have started looking at him and his era skillfully and intelligently. Since 2005 leading historians including James T. Patterson, the late John Patrick Diggins, and Sean Wilentz have published important, and surprisingly respectful, works about Reagan. Wilentz’s The Age of Reagan was the most surprising, as an iconic baby-boomer professor and liberal activist acknowledged how much Reagan’s era had changed and frequently improved America.

Even after the financial meltdown, we still live in the Age of Reagan. His legacy shapes the continuing fights about abortion, taxes, the budget deficit, and health care as well as the debates about greed versus altruism, individual versus community, tradition versus change in America. Moreover, just as we needed to understand Franklin Roosevelt to understand Ronald Reagan,

who modeled his presidency on the most influential president of his youth, we need to understand Reagan to help understand Barack Obama.

President Obama, thus, is leading us back toward studying the Reagan era, even as he tries to lead the country away from Reagan’s antigovernment assumptions. Today’s college students, who were born just as Reagan’s presidency was ending, deserve more opportunities to understand this president and an era that so shaped their America. It may be more fun for professors to trot out tie-dyed T-shirts than power ties as props. It may be more inspiring for students to be asked to chant together, “Hell, no, we won’t go,” the classic antiwar slogan, when they study the Vietnam era than to watch Michael Douglas in Wall Street declare, “Greed is good.” But in the 21st century, it is probably more important to understand Ronald Reagan’s 1987 speech in Berlin, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” than John F. Kennedy’s classic “Ich bin ein Berliner.”

And the only way we can understand Barack Obama’s inaugural formulation that the “question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works,” and Bill Clinton’s declaration in 1996 that the era of big government was over, is by studying Reagan’s inaugural proclamation that “government isn’t the solution, government is the problem.” Even if we love teaching the 60s, it is our responsibility as historians to teach the 80s.

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By Gil Troy, Toronto Star, 3-5-09

AARON HARRIS/TORONTO STAR A protester stands in the Wallberg Building at U of T on March 3, 2009, during lectures for Israeli Apartheid Week.

Day after day we read about aggressive student protesters and dithering administrators at universities across Canada, but particularly at York University.

Radical student hooligans there intimidated and even temporarily incarcerated Jewish students last month as cries of “Die, Jew, get the hell off campus,” were heard.

This week, tensions are bound to escalate at York and other campuses as Palestinians try equating Israel with the now-defunct racist South African apartheid regime. Even the posters advertising the week have sparked tensions. Recoiling at the violence at York and elsewhere, we need to ask: Where are the professors?

During times of political trouble we tend to forget that campuses are primarily educational institutions. They are also the professional homes of professors who need to take a stand when violence and hooliganism invade their academic sanctuary.

With all due respect to campus security and police officers, when the call goes out to them for help, we as professors have failed.

A campus that needs the “thin blue line” of law enforcement is a campus that has violated its fundamental obligation to keep students safe and to host the free exchange of ideas so essential to good learning.

Yet even when disaster strikes and the 911 call goes out, professors can still step in.

Professors underestimate their own moral authority. Our power goes far beyond the ability to give out As or Fs. We are the university’s public face, the basic service providers, the campus role models.

The human dimension in education remains central in our hypertechnological age. Our students are always watching us. They learn from our actions – and our inactions. At York University and any other university where even one student feels physically threatened, professors must mobilize and – as the feminists say – take back the night.

For starters, a broad range of York professors, from different fields and from across the political spectrum, should denounce the violence. Professors highly critical of Israel should take the lead, teaching that the issue is not about Israel, pro or con, but about student security and campus civility.

Professors should volunteer to escort any students or student groups who feel unsafe. And yes, if necessary, professors should stand between rival groups on campus, literally standing for civility not just endorsing it.

Rather than relying on the monochromatic uniforms of campus security, the professors should don their multicoloured academic gowns. If professors feel comfortable parading around in these robes at commencement to celebrate student achievement, shouldn’t we don them when the core values of our university are threatened?

Finally, professors should turn these traumatic events in the university’s life into what we in the education biz call “teachable moments.” Both regular class time and special teach-ins should be devoted to learning about free speech; about the mutuality of rights so we don’t have “free speech for me and not for thee”; about the centrality of civility to campus life; and about the historic roles of campuses as centres of civility.

Professors at places like Carleton, where the apartheid posters have sparked controversy, should also step in and work to keep the debate civil and avoid the violence that erupted at York.

I do not mean to single out my colleagues at York University. We at McGill or anywhere else in North America would do no better – and have done no better.

Since the 1960s, we as professors have abdicated responsibility for campus life outside the classroom, ceding it to students and administrators.

Most professors have preferred to dodge the politically charged issues that have periodically roiled campuses since those days, and there is often little political consensus among colleagues. Avoidance has been safer than engagement.

Moreover, we live in the age of the academic careerist, where most of us are too overextended as well as too cautious to take bold stands.

Unfortunately, the ugly violence that now threatens York’s reputation and its future demands professorial action and leadership. Students and administrators have failed. Donors are understandably getting restive. Parents and potential students are worried.

York professors have a responsibility to defend their academic home and a great opportunity to heal it.

No one goes into academics these days because it is the easy path. And most of us who research and teach believe in the redemptive power of learning.

York professors have a responsibility and a privilege to help solve the problem plaguing their university. Teaching is not just a job, it is a calling. It is time for York’s professors to answer the call and redeem their university.

Gil Troy is a professor of history at McGill University.

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